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The hunger to excel propelled Tinsley to college at 15, where he really discovered the passion that would dominate his life. He won his first world title in 1955.
And in 1992, he agreed to put his title on the line in the first Man-Machine World Championship against Chinook. The match was sponsored by the computer manufacturer Silicon Graphics and held in London. “I can win,” Tinsley told The Independent. “I have a better programmer than Chinook. His was Jonathan, mine was the Lord.”
For the two weeks leading up to the event, another world-class player, Don Lafferty, trained with him down in Tallahassee, going over their matches and reviewing positions deep into the night.
The 1992 games were held at the Park Lane Hotel, which had hosted world chess championships as well as the Computer Olympiad that had been Chinook’s public debut two years earlier. The room was large and two-storied, with a balcony that overlooked the players and the refrigerator-sized computer that was running Chinook.
Schaeffer and Tinsley sat across from each other, and a large screen rendered the movement of the pieces. Tinsley drew first blood, besting Chinook in game five. But then in game eight, Chinook delivered a stunning win; it was Tinsley’s sixth loss in 40 years.
Despite the years of toil and dreams of success, Schaeffer felt sadness in that moment. “We’re still members of the human race,” he wrote in his book, “and Chinook defeating Tinsley in a single game means that it will only be a matter of time before computers will be supreme in checkers, and eventually in other games like chess.” Schaeffer might have won, but the humans have lost.
After a series of draws, Chinook won again in game 16. No living player had ever defeated Tinsley more than once. Incredibly, almost unbelievably, the software was on top. They were on the verge of making computing history.
Then, in an episode that Schaeffer still finds too painful to describe, Chinook had some sort of error, which forced them to resign the game, tying the match up. “Tinsley viewed it as God helping him out,” Schaeffer said. “It was a religious experience for Tinsley and one of the most devastating experiences of my life.”
Schaeffer and Chinook were never able to get back on top.Tinsley came from behind to win the match, retaining his title.
“I think, if I can keep my health, I don’t believe there will ever be a computer that can beat me,” Tinsley told CNN after the match.
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All of which set the table for the 1994 matchup in Boston.
In the run-up, Chinook had played Derek Oldbury and trounced him. Shortly thereafter, Oldbury died. “Chinook plays Oldbury. Chinook beats Oldbury. Oldbury dies,” Tinsley joked with Schaeffer. “He must have died of Chinookitis!”
Schaeffer was not amused. He was a young man programming computers to play an old man’s game. The best players were dying off. And it was, in the eyes of some in the checkers world, a bit untoward for this guy with his fancy machines and code to come around beating up on the frail masters.